Taissumani: August 11, 1889 – The Death of Hans Hendrik


With Hans Island once again in the news following Defence Minister Bill Graham’s unwarranted and unannounced visit to the Danish island in the far north, it seems an opportune time to tell about the Greenlandic guide after whom the island is named.

Hans Hendrik was born in Fiskenaesset on the west coast of Greenland about 1834, and educated there by Moravian missionaries. His native name was Suersaq.

When he was only 19, Hendrik was hired by Elisha Kent Kane, the U.S. explorer, to go north with him on the Second Grinnell Expedition in search of Sir John Franklin. That expedition spent two winters on Kane’s vessel, the Advance, at Rensselaer Harbour in northwestern Greenland. Hendrik and William Morton made a sledge journey even farther north and discovered Kennedy Channel, although they apparently did not name the tiny island which today bears Hendrik’s first name – perhaps they didn’t see it.

Hendrik had been born south of the Arctic Circle where the sun doesn’t completely disappear in the winter. His first winter with Kane was also his first experience of the mid-winter dark of the High Arctic. He described it this way:

“Then it really grew winter and dreadfully cold, and the sky speedily darkened. Never had I seen the dark season like this, to be sure it was awful. I thought we should have no daylight any more. I was seized with fright, and fell a-weeping. I never in my life saw such darkness at noon time. As the darkness continued for three months, I really believed we should have no daylight more.”

Kane praised Hendrik’s abilities. When many of the crew were sick or injured, Kane wrote, “If Hans gives way, God help us.” But Hendrik didn’t give way; instead he ran away, apparently afraid of Kane. He remained with the Inuit of the district for some years, taking an Inughuit woman as his wife.

In 1860, Isaac Israel Hayes hired Hendrik at Cape York as a hunter for his expedition, which wintered at Foulke Fjord on the Greenland coast. Unlike Kane, Hayes did not like Hendrik, and even blamed him for the deaths of two expedition members. He described Hendrik as “a type of the worst phase of the Esquimau character.”

In the summer of 1861, Hendrik moved south to the Upernavik region, where he worked for the Royal Greenland Trade Department. Ten years later another American, Charles Francis Hall, launched an expedition to the North Pole by ship. He hired Hendrik as a hunter and guide, and took him, his wife, and three children north on the Polaris. On the way north through Kennedy Channel, Hall noticed an island that was not on the maps that had been made by Kane. It was a tiny island mid-way between Ellesmere Island and the Greenland coast; Hall named it “Hans Island” after his hunter and guide.

Hall died on that expedition. In the fall of 1872, with the Polaris out of its winter harbour and heading south, a storm arose and a party of 19 people, including Hendrik and his family, took to the ice with their belongings, fearing that the ship would sink. They drifted on the ice floe for six months, from northwestern Greenland to just north of Newfoundland. No-one died on this amazing drift. Everyone owed their survival to Hendrik and to Ipiirvik, an Inuk from Baffin Island. They both hunted sea mammals by kayak from their floating home.

After some time in Washington, where an inquiry was conducted into the Polaris expedition, Hendrik returned to Upernavik, to his former job with the trade department. But in 1875 he joined one more High Arctic expedition, this time a British one under George Nares. That expedition wintered in northeastern Ellesmere Island. Nares wrote that “all speak in the highest terms of Hans.”

The following year he moved to Godhavn on Disko Bay, Greenland, and again worked for the trade department. In 1883 he participated in one final expedition, this one a Danish venture which explored part of the west coast of Greenland. He died peacefully at his home in Godhavn, on August 11, 1889, aged 55.

Hendrik was one of many Inuit employed by arctic expeditions to fill the role of hunter, guide and sledge-driver. In this he was not unique. But Hendrik was the only one to write his own life story and have it published. It was an account of his life through to the end of the Nares expedition. He wrote it in Greenlandic and it was serialized in the newspaper, Atuagagdliutit. Heinrich Rink, a Danish geologist and colonial administrator, translated it into English and it was published in 1878 under the title “Memoirs of Hans Hendrik, the Arctic Traveller.” It is an extremely rare book today, a unique document chronicling the life of a well-travelled Greenlander.

Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History recounts a specific event of historic interest, whose anniversary is in the coming week. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to kennharper@hotmail.com.

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